As the death toll from the Maui wildfires rises to 80, a timeline of communications failures emerges

WAILUKU, Hawaii (AP) — In the hours before a wildfire swept through the town of Lahaina, Maui County officials failed to activate sirens that would have warned all residents of approaching flames and instead relied on a series of sometimes confusing social media posts that reached… to a much smaller audience.

Residents’ power and cell phone outages hampered communication efforts. Some survivors reported that radio reports were rare, even as the fire began to consume the city. Roadblocks then forced drivers to escape onto a narrow street in the city centre, creating a bottleneck that was soon surrounded by flames on all sides. At least 80 people have been confirmed dead so far.

Read more: How to help survivors of the deadly wildfires in Maui

The silent sirens have raised questions about whether everything has been done to alert the public in a state that has a sophisticated emergency warning system for a variety of hazards including wars, volcanoes, hurricanes and wildfires.

Hector Bermudez left his Lahaina Shores apartment shortly after 4:30 p.m. Tuesday after the smell of smoke woke him from a nap. He asked his neighbor if he was leaving too.

Bermudez recounted: “He said, ‘No, I’m waiting for the authorities to see what they do.'” “And I said, ‘No, no, please go. This smoke is going to kill us. You have to go. Please. You have to get out of here. Don’t wait for anyone.’

His 70-year-old neighbor, who has difficulty walking, refused.

Bermudez does not know if he survived.

Officials with the Maui Emergency Management Agency did not immediately respond Friday to questions about the sirens and other communications issues.

Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez said her office will conduct a comprehensive review of the decision-making process and standing policies surrounding the wildfires.

“My department is committed to understanding the decisions made before and during the bushfires and sharing the results of this review with the public,” she said in a statement on Friday, adding that “now is the time to begin this understanding process.” “.

The Associated Press created a timeline of wildfires, using information from multiple sources including county announcements, state and local emergency management alerts and interviews with officials and survivors.

The timeline shows that public updates about the fires were sporadic and often vague, and much of the county’s attention focused on another, larger, dangerous fire in Upcountry Maui that was threatening neighborhoods on Kula. It shows no indication that county officials have activated an all-hazard siren system in the area, revealing a dearth of other emergency alerts.

Read more: Questions grow about wildfire warnings as the death toll rises on Maui

However, in the hours before the wildfires began, warnings about high winds were frequent and widely disseminated by the county and other agencies. Residents were told on Monday that a hurricane passing far to the south was expected to produce wind gusts of up to 65 mph (105 km/h).

The Upcountry fire started first, reported shortly after midnight Tuesday, and the first evacuations followed near Kula.

The fire started near Lahaina later, around 6:37 a.m. Tuesday. Some homes in Lahaina’s inner neighborhoods were evacuated, but by 9:55 a.m., the county reported the fire was completely contained. However, the announcement included another warning that high winds would remain a concern for the next 24 hours.

Power also went out early that morning, leaving several thousand customers without power in the Lahaina/West Maui area and the Upcountry. Many downed power lines require repair.

By 11 a.m., fire crews from several towns and the Hawaii Land Department gathered to douse the flames in the Upcountry area, but wind gusts reaching up to 80 mph (129 kph) made conditions unsafe for helicopters. At 3:20 p.m., more rural neighborhoods were evacuated.

Meanwhile, the Lahaina Fire evaded containment and was forced to close the Lahaina Bypass by 3:30 p.m. However, the ad was not turned into an update on the county’s fires until 4:45 p.m. and did not appear on the county’s Facebook page until about 5 p.m., when survivors said flames were surrounding the cars of families trapped downtown.

But as the Lahaina Fire was spreading, Maui County officials and the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency were making other urgent announcements — including a Facebook post about additional evacuations near the Upcountry Fire and an announcement that the acting governor had issued an emergency declaration.

In an Upcountry evacuation Facebook post at 3:20 p.m., Assistant Fire Chief Jeff Gesia shared an ominous warning.

“The fire could be a mile or more from your home, but in a minute or two, it could reach your home,” Giesia said.

Mike Cicchino lived below the Lahaina Bypass in an inner Lahaina neighborhood. He went home at 3:30 p.m. and minutes later realized the flames were quickly surrounding his neighborhood.

He shouted at the neighbor’s children to get their mother and leave. He ran inside to get his wife and the dogs they were watching. Cecchino and others in the neighborhood then jumped into their cars to leave. He heard announcements on his car radio, but said there was essentially no information.

He watches: Why were people on Maui surprised by deadly wildfires?

State social media attention shifted from Upcountry to Lahaina at 4:29 p.m., when the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency posted on X (formerly Twitter) that the local Maui Emergency Management Authority had declared an immediate evacuation for an inland section of Lahaina. Residents were directed to take shelter at the Lahaina Civic Center on the city’s north side.

Just before 5 p.m., Maui County shared a new report on the Lahaina fire on Facebook: “Explosion forces Lahaina bypass to close; shelter in place encouraged.”

Many of them were already running away from the flames. Lynn Robison was evacuated from her apartment near Front Street on the waterfront at 4:33 p.m

“There was no warning. There was no warning at all. No one came. We didn’t see a fire engine or anyone,” Robison said.

Lana Vieira left her neighborhood about a mile (less than two kilometers) away at about the same time. Her boyfriend stopped and told her he saw the fire approaching the road.

“He told me straight away: People are going to die in this city, you have to get out,” she recalls. She said there were no sirens or alerts on her cell phone.

But access to the main highway — the only road in and out of Lahaina — was cut off by barricades set up by authorities. Roadblocks forced people directly into harm’s way, resulting in cars being directed onto Front Street.

“All the locals in Lahaina were put in that corner over there, and I felt like the county put us in a death trap,” Cicchino said.

Nathan Bird and his family fled by car through a checkpoint, Nathan Bird told Canadian CBC Radio.

“There was traffic everywhere. No one knew where to go. They were trying to force everyone to go to the Civic Center and…it just didn’t make sense to me,” Byrd said. “I was confused. At first, I was like, ‘Why are all these people heading toward the fire?’

Cicchino and his wife became trapped by walls of flame as Front Street burned. They ran toward the ocean, spending hours squatting behind the sea wall or treading water in the crashing waves, depending on which area was safest as the ever-changing flames raged.

A view of damage caused by wildfires in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii, in this undated photo posted on August 11, 2023. Photo shared by the office of Hawaii Governor Josh Green/Handout via Reuters

At 5:20 p.m., Maui County shared another update on the Lahaina fire on Facebook: Evacuations in a subdivision were continuing, but access to the main highway was again open.

The U.S. Coast Guard’s first notification of the fires was when the Honolulu Search and Rescue Command Center received reports of people in the water near Lahaina at 5:45 p.m., said Capt. Aja Kirksey, commander of Coast Guard Sector Honolulu.

It was difficult to see the boats due to the smoke, but Cicchino and others used mobile phones to shine lights on the ships and guide them.

Cecchino helped load the children onto Coast Guard boats, and at one point, he loaned his cellphone — which was hidden in his wife’s waterproof bag — to a Guard member so they could call fire crews. He said the rescue operation took hours, and he and his wife were finally extracted from Lahaina around 1 a.m. Wednesday.

Maui County Facebook posts around 8:40 p.m. Tuesday urged residents in the surrounding area who were not affected by the fires to take shelter, and said the smoke was causing more road closures. One commenter pointed out communication problems shortly before 9pm, with the commenter writing: “You understand all communication with Lahaina is down and no one can contact anyone on this side.”

Riley Curran, who fled his Lahaina home after climbing a nearby apartment building to get a better look at the fire, doesn’t think there’s anything the county could have done.

“It’s not that people weren’t trying to do anything,” Curran said. “But it was so fast that no one had time to do anything.” “The fire went from 0 to 100.”

But Cicchino said it all seemed like the county wasn’t prepared and government agencies weren’t communicating with each other.

“I feel the boycott cost a lot of people’s lives and homes that day,” he said. “I felt a lot of this could have been prevented if they had thought about these things in the morning, and taken their precautions.” “You live in a fire zone. They have a lot of fires. You have to prepare for fires.”

All hazard sirens are tested every month to ensure they are working well. During the last test, on August 1, these devices failed in three separate incidents in three provinces. Maui’s siren tone was too short, so officials successfully repeated the test later that day.

Carl Kim directs the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center, a University of Hawaii-based organization that develops training materials to help officials respond to natural disasters.

Kim said it was too early to know exactly how the warning and warning system could have saved more lives in Lahaina, and noted that wildfires are often more difficult to manage than volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and even earthquakes because they are difficult to detect and track. time.

“I think it’s a wake-up call,” he said. “We have to invest more in understanding wildfires and the threats they pose, which are not well understood.”

Boone reported from Boise, Idaho and Keeler from Honolulu. Associated Press journalists Andrew Celsky in Salem, Oregon; Matt Sedensky in New York City; Haven Daly in Wailuku, Hawaii; Helen Weaver in Washington; Christopher Keeler in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Brian Mele in London contributed.

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